DURHAM, N.C. – The Council of the American Association for the Advancement of Science (AAAS) has selected Martin Smith, George M. Woodwell Distinguished Professor of Environmental Economics at Duke’s Nicholas School of the Environment, as fellow, one of the most distinguished honors in the scientific community.

AAAS chose Smith “for distinguished contributions to the field of environmental economics and ocean studies, particularly for bioeconomics of fisheries, global seafood markets, and coastal climate change adaptation”. Smith is known for identifying unintended consequences of marine and coastal policies that fail to consider human behavioral feedback. He combines economic theory and advanced econometric methods to analyze fisher behavior, evaluate policy impacts, and model coupled human-natural systems, like in his latest research on why coastal real estate pricing doesn’t reflect the risk of sea-level rise. His interdisciplinary approach integrates biology, ecology, and geoscience with economics.

Martin Smith presenting in front of large screen at conference

Martin Smith presents at conference | Credit: Martin Smith

“When we study a problem like fisheries in economics, or a problem like coastal climate adaptation, we’re already studying an interaction between humans and the environment,” said Smith, who holds a primary appointment in Marine Science and Conservation in Duke’s Nicholas School of the Environment and a secondary appointment in Duke’s Department of Economics. Smith teaches courses in environmental/resource economics and marine conservation spanning undergraduate, master's, and Ph.D. curricula in the Nicholas School, including his interdisciplinary course, “Should I eat fish? Economics, Ecology, and Human Health”, where students learn that conservation is far from simple.

He starts that class by placing paper fish on a table, telling students that they have thirty seconds to harvest the fish. “Whatever’s left on the table, I will double,” he says. “Then you’ll have thirty seconds to fish again.” Students redeem each caught fish for one point that goes toward their final grade. Students inevitably compete in a grabbing frenzy until the table is bare. Their frenzy is fast, earnings short-lived, and potential bump in grade largely unrealized.

“What do you make of the claims that the problem of overfishing is the greed of the fishermen?” Smith asks students. The implication is that understanding overfishing requires simultaneously grasping concepts of fish population dynamics, globalization, governance, property rights, and the commons. “For me as an economist, this is the starting place,” he told Duke Magazine, which profiled his class in 2012. Some tenets of the economics of human behavior, and environmental economics overall, hold true one dozen years later. “When students who are passionate environmentalists can drive those paper fish to extinction, it's clear that the commons problem is a behavioral dilemma and not some ethical shortcoming.”

Marine conservation often starts with a simple and well-intentioned prescription, said Smith. “But those prescriptions can lead to serious, unintended consequences if you don’t think about the social science and economic angles,” he said in an earlier interview. He gave the example of an industry-wide fishing quota triggering a mad race to fish in bigger, faster boats, which causes the regulator to shorten the fishing season, which exacerbates the commons problem. So, how would an environmental economist, and AAAS fellow, advise? “We must make difficult choices about who has access to finite resources. It’s possible to fish sustainably, and expand seafood production from aquaculture, but there will inevitably be winners and losers. We also cannot afford to be naïve about globalization and climate change. The fishing industry cannot unilaterally stop these forces and, instead, needs to develop governance that takes them into consideration,” said Smith.

National Science Foundation, National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, and others have supported Smith’s research on the bioeconomics of fisheries management, climate change adaptation in coastal zones, and seafood markets. He has published widely on policy-relevant topics, including the economics of marine protected areas, seasonal closures in fisheries, ecosystem-based management, catch shares, nutrient pollution, aquaculture, food security, genetically modified foods, the global seafood trade, organic agriculture, coastal property markets, and coastal responses to climate change. Smith has served as president of the International Institute of Fisheries Economics and Trade (IIFET), as co-editor of the leading journals in environmental economics, and as editor-in-chief of the top specialty journal in economics of oceans, Marine Resource Economics.

Smith is currently expanding his work on the global seafood trade to examine nutritional security, continuing to study the economics of climate change adaptation in the coastal zone, and is writing a book for a lay audience about how to apply insights from environmental economics to decision-making in the home.

When students who are passionate environmentalists can drive those paper fish to extinction, it's clear that the commons problem is a behavioral dilemma and not some ethical shortcoming.”

-Martin D. Smith

Since 1874, fellows are elected annually by the AAAS Council in recognition of exceptional achievements in their discipline. Smith and other newly nominated fellows will be recognized at a Fellows Forum in Washington, D.C. on September 21, 2024. Read more about this year’s fellows from Duke University.

Toddi Steelman, Ph.D.'96, former Stanback Dean of the Nicholas School of the Environment and Duke's current Vice President and Vice Provost for Climate and Sustainability, was also named a 2023 AAAS fellow. She is profiled separately.